Taking Refuge is probably one of the most common Buddhist practices there is. Arguably it should be the most common practice, but we all know not everyone lives by the book. I say it should be the most common because it is done before pretty much everything in Buddhism. Doing a meditation, Take Refuge first, going to give offerings, Take Refuge first, going to perform a ritual, Take Refuge first, going to do Buddhist mantras in calligraphy, Take Refuge first. So what is Taking Refuge?
On the simplest level if is a recitation of a simple phrase/idea, there are hundreds of variations, one of the most basic is “I go for Refuge in the Triple Gem” but more clearly, listing the Gems it would be “I go for refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” Who the Buddha is should be somewhat obvious, Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha (simplistically), and the Sangha refers to the spiritual community, to the temple, to other Buddhists. But why Refuge?
Well, Refuge means a couple of things; first and foremost we could understand it as aligning yourself with the Buddhist current. Just as many other traditions have some form of opening prayer or such that refocuses the person on the tradition, this is what Refuge is, you say this is what I am doing, this is the Path, and I am connecting myself to it. “This is the teacher, this is the teaching, this is the tradition, I am a part of it.”
Along with the alignment, it is a request for help, support, and encouragement, either from the figures and forces involved or the current itself. “I ask for assistance from the Buddha, I ask for assistance from the Dharma, I ask for assistance from the Sangha, I am on the Path and seek aid.”
Tied to the notion alignment, it’s also a recognition, in some forms of Buddhism it’s understood that we’re inherently Pure and Interdependent, and the act of becoming Enlightened is recognizing and revealing that, so Refuge is a reminder in that case. “I am Buddha, I am Dharma, I am Sangha, I am Primordially Pure.”
It’s also a declaration of intent. “I aspire to become like the Buddha, I aspire to follow the Dharma, I aspire to support the Sangha, I will become Enlightened.”
While not discussed nearly as much, it’s also a form of protective magick. When you reconnect to the Purity, or Align yourself with a tradition, you tap into the strength of it, and that gives you a form of protection and authority. That is why in chöd (a specific school of practice within Vajrayana Buddhism) originally you did not go for Refuge, because the point of the practice was to be open and be willing to give up your attachment to everything, and asking for protection is an attachment to the status quo in that ritual context. (Sometime into the 14th century or so it looks like Refuge became part of chöd as it was incorporated into the monastic scene more)
Now just because Taking Refuge is a Buddhist practice, doesn’t mean it isn’t something that could be used by someone of another tradition. The first two things that come to mind are Sam Webster’s Tantric Thelema, where he gives ways of giving Refuge that are more “generic” and more Thelemic, as well as the magickal order I owe a lot of my initial training too, for we had Refuge inspired by Buddhism, but not in a strictly Buddhist way.
Our Refuge was more inspired by Crowley’s understanding of Refuge back when he was a Buddhist, before receiving the Liber AL vel Legis. In 1903 he wrote Science and Buddhism and explained Refuge as such:
I take my refuge in the Buddha. That there was once a man who found the Way is my encouragement.
I take my refuge in the Dhamma. The Law under-lying phenomena and its unchanging certainty; the Law given by the Buddha to show us the Way, the inevitable tendency to Persistence in Motion or Rest—and
Persistence, even in Motion, negates change in consciousness—these observed orders of fact are our bases.
I take my refuge in the Sangha. These are not isolated efforts on my part; although in one sense isolation is eternally perfect and can never be overcome, in another sense associates are possible and desirable.
For us we took Refuge in the Three Spheres, which in this case translated as the teacher, reality, and community, essentially the same as Buddhism, but without Buddha directly. The teacher was any great sage, any gnostic saint, any wise person who is Enlightened (however your tradition understands that), so it could be Buddha, it could be Jesus or St. Francis, it could be Crowley, or Lao Tzu. Whoever saw the Beauty Beyond could be the teacher, we also believed in an idealized teacher, not necessarily a real or objective person, but a symbolic person, Wisdom made Manifest. For Dharma, we focused less on direct teachings, and more Reality itself, which is actually how Refuge is understood occasionally in Tantra. Like Crowley it was the “Law under-lying phenomena,” the Universe works a certain way, and we took Refuge in that, not to fight or impose a misguided understanding, but accept Reality. Lastly the community, this was our order, but it was also any person in the current of wisdom and enlightenment, anyone who is trying to Become, this can be the great sages of the past, but the ones who didn’t quite make it. John Dee for instance, a brilliant man, but I might argue not on the same spiritual level as someone like Lao Tzu. (For a completely mixed cultural example)
So in reality you can Take Refuge regardless of tradition, you just need to figure out who and what the Three Jewels would be for you. Also, when you look at what Refuge is for, it’s not a bad little ritual to include as a way of centring and connecting to tradition or current before you begin your work.
Who is the enlightened teacher that inspires you? This can be a real person, a founder of your tradition if they’re understood to be enlightened, or it could be a god within the tradition. I recommend it not be a person you know physically, unless they’re recognized as Enlightened. Earthly personal teachers, are people too, and flawed, and you don’t want to take Refuge in someone like that. (Though more on that idea later)
What are the teachings of the tradition? Do you have a set of rules to obey that you dedicate yourself to, or do you dedicate yourself to the Laws of the Cosmos?
Who is the community? The saints, the protectors, those who work with you, and walk with you? Physical people, deceased people, spirits and angels.While a strict Buddhist might argue against Taking Refuge in a god, that is one way to do it. (Arguably even within Buddhism it depends on what type of god, as there are gods in Samsara, reality as we understand it, and gods who are Enlightened, the latter being acceptable sources of Refuge.) If you’re considering Taking Refuge in a god, consider a few things, like enlightenment and scope. With the model of Taking Refuge the Object of Refuge can never take you beyond themselves, so if you use a deity in this way they are the best you can aspire to. Now, becoming a god sounds pretty sweet (*Insert a lazy Koetting joke here?*), but think about the mythologies, some gods are almost always wise and noble, Jesus and Krishna, other gods can be petty and foolish, Zeus and Set, and whomever you Take Refuge in, you work towards. Along with that is the idea of scope, some gods are small in scope and scale, and that isn’t a judgment against them, but ideally when going for Refuge you want to approach a deity who is transcendent, and many gods are both. In the Greek tradition Hekate is both a personal deity, and in some forms a transcendent deity, in some forms of Hinduism Kali is both personal and transcendent underlying all reality. Those transcendent deities are the best focus for this.
Some quick examples I have come across are in my training and work with the order:
I go for Refuge in Kali
I go for Refuge in Dharma and Karma
I go for Refuge in all who are Returning
I go for Refuge in Nut
I go for Refuge in Ma’at
I go for Refuge in the Priesthood
I go for Refuge in Our Lady of Darkness
I go for Refuge in the Nameless Path
I go for Refuge in the Mighty Dead
The advantage of using a system where you have “simplified” the naming conventions is it allows a group to work together, without conflict. So if everyone says Teacher, Teaching, Community, they can do it together, but have their own understanding of it. (The group I was in phrased it as Sun, Pluto, and Moon)
So you can see how people have intelligently (we hope) replaced the Triple Gem with appropriate equivalent for their system. Admittedly this only works with some of the simpler understandings of Refuge, to take Refuge Vows for instance is a big thing, and this is nothing like it.
Whelp, this post was actually supposed to be about how my specific Buddhist lineage does Refuge a bit differently, but the explanation of Refuge became its own post. Join me later this week when I expand on Refuge beyond Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and talk about how to invoke and evoke them.
Though I would be curious who and what others make Take Refuge in? If folks want to share I’d be interested in hearing.